“We share our mutual woes;
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.”
~ John Fawcett (18th C.), Blest be the Tie that Binds.
While I’d been amidst a fairly usual chaotic swirl blending together employment commitments, teaching projects, studying, writing, and travel planning- all of these things came to a sudden halt. The waves of pandemic from afar have found their ways to places like Maine; it’s everywhere, and everything has had to change. Because this crisis is completely global- leaving politics aside- each one of us has a unique perspective. Obviously, the larger numbers and compounded tragedies are in densely-populated places, yet the symptoms are the same in every place. The coronavirus manifested in Maine from scattered cases to increased numbers in the more populated southern counties. Watching what was happening in the Boston area, 120 miles south of Portland, we could all see how serious this is, with the closures and lockdowns taking effect almost pre-emptively. Only 2½ weeks ago, people were out and about, doing business, though wary of what might lie ahead. By the 16th of March, the shuttering of most businesses and places of community began taking effect in this region.
Above: Boston: The day after I took this photo, business closures began.
These words are being written during the citywide shelter-in-place order. Downtown Portland has been eerily desolate and silent for nearly 2 weeks. The absence of air traffic is reminiscent of the days after September 11, 2001. The completely silent streets remind me of the hush of a snow blizzard, but without the windrattled windows and the muffled grind of snowplows. It’s also warm outside. Our parlance now comprises expressions such as social distancing, self-isolation, quarantining, and bunkering. The airport word, curbside, now refers to food services. Churches use the term ungathered worship. Many of us have become proficient with teleconferencing. Employment has become frighteningly tenuous, and my workdays have been by remote access for 2 weeks. As with 9/11, it is a time to take stock of what remains intact and find what is good- basic as it may be. But this is unlike 9/11, as the end of this protracted crucible is not in sight.
Along with all the new terminology and habits generated by these times, there are our own words. Many of you may be hearing words like strange, weird, bizarre, surreal, and unprecedented as much as I am hearing them. And maybe you’re not audibly hearing the words, but reading them instead through social media which has notably intensified. Each one of us has a story. As an instructor of writing and philosophy, as well as a full-time archivist, I’ve been encouraging those I know and mentor to write their perspectives. I’m doing this, too, while trying to figure out my compromised daily routines. Our personal narratives are serving us now as stabilizing forces, and ways to make sense of the present. These journal entries are also pointed toward the future: it’s where we can dream ahead and create a documentary record for later reference. And certainly, in our writing we can remember. I’ve written about life before 3 weeks ago, missing my favorite people, libraries, cafés, diners, events, and the many other places of social gathering.
Before I could assemble coherent thoughts in my journal, and while figuring out how to continue my job from my dining table, I thought of my friends and letter-writing. To my friends on a social media outlet, a simple offer of writing them real paper postal letters generated dozens of responses. I’ve answered each request with a personal letter. Receiving a letter at one’s door, manually and personally written, is a kind of permissible visit in these alienating times. Before all the “nonessential” stores closed, I bought a stack of post cards and stickers to add to the letters. While trying to find an efficient work routine, each day begins with my 5 minute walk to the neighborhood post office to drop off the letters written the night before. The postmaster has become a good friend, and our morning chats, from at least 6 feet away, have provided comic relief for the both of us. He doesn’t see many people, either. The letters have gone to a variety of states and countries, and in 2 weeks I’ve written more than 40 personal letters. With journal writing, I’m encouraging my friends to reach out with writing as well. “Letters mingle souls,” John Donne famously said, “for thus friends absent speak.”
Along with acclimating to this desolate new reality, with its lexicon of expressions unknown a month ago, intense emotions are also absorbed. Those of us healthy enough to function through this must live against stresses such as anxiety, fear, uncertainty about the future, and what amounts to heavy sadness. It is of paramount importance to keep in mind the nurturing ties that bind us with our loved ones. And then there are the casualties of this terrible plague, their families and friends. To stay the course, we are finding the distractions that keep us going- perhaps a 60-foot distance away from network news. My friends tell me about the movies and serials they are watching. Musicians are offering online shows. One of my longtime healthy diversions continues to be the study of philosophy. I learn and am transported. This is a test of faith that calls upon all spiritual reserves. As horizons narrow, I push back by expanding mind and soul. Several friends have asked me to keep writing essays. That is something I’ve always loved doing, though in these times it takes an extra push to carry on.